Trump Admin Retracts Rule that Would Have Cancelled Visas for Foreign College Students Who Only Study Online

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Yesterday, the Trump administration retracted a rule that would have cancelled visas and  forced foreign students to leave the country if their institution offered only on-line instruction and they were unable to shift to institutions that offered face-to face course.

Leading universities, led by Harvard and MIT and joined by other academic institutions,  had filed a legal challenge to the rule change, which had also been condemned by many businesses (see US student visa: Top universities back Harvard, MIT lawsuit). The rule change resolves the lawsuit.

Foreign students and global elites breathed a huge sign of relief. But the situation is not yet fully resolved, as Live Mint reports in In surprise move, Trump administration reverses course on barring many foreign students:

The government said it would drop the plan amid a legal challenge brought by universities. But a senior U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official said the administration still intended to issue a regulation in the coming weeks addressing whether foreign students can remain in the United States if their classes move online.

The mooted Trump change further erodes confidence in U.S.policy and priorities, and the continued vacillation is, to undoubtedly unsettling for both current and future students alike. It will undoubtedly influence future recruitment.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif penned an op-ed in today’s New York Times stating the globalist case for foreign students in the United States,The Administration Retreated on Student Visas, but the Battle Isn’t Over:

Yet the larger battle is far from over. This misguided policy was one of many signals that the administration wants foreign students to stay away — an attitude that reflects a stark misreading of our national interest.

In any long-running competition, no one understands your strengths better than your rivals. At a dinner I attended a few years back, Chinese tech leaders contended that China’s most important economic advantage is scale: China’s vast population and market offer a permanent leg up. But they also remarked on America’s persistent advantage in scientific creativity.

To be sure, many of these students would like to stay in the United States – and that raises the immigration bugaboo:

The latest data show, for example, that 83 percent of Ph.D. students from China, the kind of highly trained scientists and engineers who drive American innovation, were still in the United States five years after completing their degrees.

The percentage would be higher if longstanding U.S. policies did not require many students to return home after finishing their education — a system as counterproductive as training a great player and then insisting that she go play for a rival team. Recently, the percentage of doctoral graduates remaining here has begun to decline, in part because our national message is that they are not welcome.

Now, I point out, the openness and attractiveness of leading universities is a longstanding virtue and dates at least to medieval times, when Oxford, the Sorbonne, and other places attracted scholars. I’m sure it extends well before then. So one can appreciate Reif’s argument and one would expect MIT to seek to attract able students from around the world. Yet  part of the allure of universities is that they are supposed to be beyond nationality. I guess what bothers me  is that he couches his argument in terms of what’s in the national interest. But perhaps I am just being idealistic, and even a bit naive.

COVID-19 Challenge

Now, Reif fails to mention how important the roughly 1 miilion foreign students, many of whom pay full freight, are to the bottom line of many of our institutions of higher education – especially now, when COVID-19 poses considerable challenges for US colleges and universities, a topic Yves discussed in Universities in a Mess Over Upcoming Year; Some Reopenings Meeting Fierce Resistance. Universities need to balance competing priorities: educating students; ensuring the health of students, faculty and support staff; and earning revenues. In the initial phase of the pandemic, many moved to online learning; Several had announced plans to continue such policies next year – although many students grumble at being forced to pay full tuition for online classes. Yet faculty at institutions such as Georgia Tech equally object at having to teach in-person classes in the face of a pandemic – a type of objection that will only accelerate as and if COVID-19 fails to come under control.

Higher education remains one of the few US industries that remains world-beating and attracts many interested  students per year. As readers are well aware, it fails to address the needs of. many potential students, and in many cases, fulfills more of a credentialing function than educating its students. And education is certainly ripe for comprehensive overhaul – one of the many where the status quo will not survive. It would be bizarre to say the least if the Trump administration sought to cut off universities from a leading revenue source in the midst of a pandemic.

But I have a bit of compassion for the students, thinking back to my days as a student, and how devastating it would have been to have my studies interrupted because the host country decided not to renew my visa.

I am a bit surprised to see Trump back down on this issue, as he generally not shied away from exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to pursue goals that are popular with his base – despite their absence of practical effect (as I wrote in Trump Tweet: Will Issue Executive Order Temporarily Suspending All Immigration into the United States). I suspect this is an issue that doesn’t really resonate with his base, as compared to other immigration isses,

In that post, I discussed how Trump tweeted in March that he would temporarily suspend all legal immigration into the US, even though,widespread lockdowns and the closure of immigration services had practically speaking already constructively done so for him. Subsequent Trump policies have been unusually cruel – even when assessed against standard immigration benchmarks, which, let’s face it, are not particularly  friendly to immigrants. Some of these policies have kept families divided, as one parent or both parents may have been out of the country when the ban occurred and thus unable to reunite with school age children.

The Bottom Line

So, for the time being, the visas of foreign students are spared. That will not resolve the longer-term challenges that confront U.S, institutions of higher education. And a larger issue looms: if the United states fails to control the COVID-19 pandemic, what parent, especially one that hails from a country that has done so, would encourage her or his child to study in the United states, notwithstanding the quality of instruction or the reputation of the institution. The same objection applies to the student. And becomes especially acute if the visa situation remains uncertain.



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  1. PlutoniumKun

    The market may be growing for students from countries like India or Vietnam, but I suspect that the trail of Chinese students is dead for the US, and maybe Australia/UK too. When you add together the changing geopolitical climate along with Covid, then there will be a huge reluctance to invest in a foreign education. European countries might benefit, but I wouldn’t be too sure.

    I’ve posted this before, but I know one UK University that has chartered a direct 747 flight to China in September in order to persuade its new inflow of Chinese students that its safe. The cost is negligible compared to the vast fees they get from Chinese medical students. Whether this works is another question.

    The other obvious question is whether this flow actually prevents many countries developing their own high quality teaching universities.

    This brings us all back to the awful neoliberal model of education. Germany manages to maintain high class third level institutions in all its cities by directly funding them and having no fees, even for non Germans. It works out vastly cheaper, and there is no evidence at all that graduates there are worse than anywhere else – on the contrary, they seem exceptionally high quality.

    1. Nick

      When you think about trade offs, a Chinese student population at US universities might be 10x the size of the next largest cohort.

      But regarding US/UK/Aus: Prospective Chinese students/families opinion of the US is such right now that UK and Australia institutions are benefiting (at least this year) based on better political/epidemiological climate. Could just be a short term boost but I’m not sure how much the underlying dynamics would change with a Biden win.

    2. bwilli123

      Extended discussion on this topic at (19:10-24:15)
      Salavatore Babones an associate professor at Syd Uni. argues that China will restrict overseas students because 1) It needs the students for its own Universities at a time of falling student age populations.
      2) It would prefer the money be spent inside China (Overseas Uni students are an informal conduit for capital flight)
      3) Propaganda victory (medically and personally safer to stay home)

  2. Shiloh1

    Follow the money. The “Illinois Flagship University”, among others, would collapse without the high-paying foreign students, no matter how they attend.

    1. Dr. John Carpenter

      I would add to this, these high-paying foreign students also bring a lot of money into the communities surrounding these colleges. Having direct knowledge of the situations of Chinese and Asian students as a certain midwestern university has been eye opening.

      1. Late Introvert

        I see it too, although indirectly. High end real estate, car dealerships, retail clothing and restaurants.

        Doesn’t trickle down much Doctor.

      2. jonswift

        What does “high-paying foreign students mean”?
        Do the American students not “also bring a lot of money into the communities surrounding these colleges”?
        How much more does a foreign student pay than his U.S. counterpart?

        1. Alexandra

          @jonswift here are the numbers for the two biggest schools in my state:

          Ohio University
          For Ohio residents (“in-state”): $12,612 for tuition only ($24,474 w/ room and board)

          For residents of other states: $22,406 ($34,268)

          International students: $22,406 ($41,124)

          The Ohio State University
          In-state: $11,518 ($24,474)

          Out of state: $22,502 ($46,528)

          International: $36,430 ($57,736)

          So international students are paying somewhere around 60%-200% more than in-state residents. And for comparison, tuition at Stanford (generally considered an expensive elite private school) is $55,473 regardless of where you’re from–so if you’re an international student, a degree from Stanford is cheaper than one from a public university like OSU… But I digress. Point is, the markup is significant.

          Also bear in mind these numbers are for undergrads–grad students pay a lot more, and most international students are also grad/medical students (55% according to the New York Times).

  3. Edward

    “how important the roughly 1 miilion foreign students, many of whom pay full freight, are to the bottom line of many of our institutions”

    I think there is a catch with this claim; colleges have administrative bloat, and the foreign tuition may simply be subsidizing this bloat. If colleges were more efficiently organized, they might not need to depend on foreign tuition.

    1. Alexandra

      @Edward there’s no question international (and graduate) tuition funds administrative bloat. Administrative bloat is the sole reason for the extravagant tuitions that ALL students pay in America.

      Unfortunately when funds are reduced, it’s never the university administrations (or, God forbid, the coaches) that get downsized. It’s the teaching staff (adjuncts, etc.), then the support staff (groundskeepers, custodians, etc.), then the faculty. Then they raise tuitions again to make up for the shortfall in enrollment when students stop coming because the university can no longer provide quality education! You can watch this happening in real time right now at Ohio University (among others), and it will be coming soon to a American university near you.

  4. Mark

    Australia has been facing a similar situation but far more severe. In our two major states overseas students did make up about ONE THIRD of all university enrollments. After mining iron and coal, education is our third largest export.

    Likewise as others have commented, this have resulted in severe bloat of our Universities and too much reliance on international students. Most Australians have little sympathy for the Universities suffering under Covid.

    Local students in particular have little sympathy a reduction in the broader international student intake. Australia has long stopped attracting the best and brightest and instead filling our classrooms with wealthy plagiarists.

    Of course we still attract plenty of clever international students that do bring great benefits to Australia, but this is now a noticeable minority. Covid has brought a reckoning to our Universities that hasn’t occurred previously due to the attraction of foreign income and the desire not to be called a racist for objecting to the imbalance.

    The quality of teaching in our institutions has deceased markedly in the last few decades, that and the quality of entrants (both local and international) has decreased. So it will be good to see a shake out of the education sector.

    The one bright spark. Australian leading Universities do have a good reputation at the higher levels of research. With 7 of the universities ranked in the top 100 Universities of the World. High acchieving international students certainly do deserve some credit for this.

    On a slightly related note. This on going legal battle to expel a student for being a vocal critic of the Chinese Communist Party is the epitome of how Australian universities are beholden to overseas income.

  5. DJG

    I suspect that what turned Trump around was the dollar figures. He understands profit and loss. As to his base, if we assume that it is mainly prosperous white suburbanites, your point that the visa ban had little value with the base is more or less on the mark. Don’t forget, though, that many prosperous white suburbanites also resent having their scions compete with minority groups and furriners for a slot at the Univ.

    But the central issues here are students as profit centers, training of a the rapacious global elite, and a fausse diversity. I am an alum of a university well known for being completely taken over by its daffy economics department (think: Friendses of Chile) and its business school, which churns out regular M.B.A.s and “executive” M.B.A.s. When the “University of Laputa” publishes breakdowns, it makes a big deal of the International Students. What it doesn’t make a big deal of is its consistent–years long–inability to recruit a representative number of U.S. black students.

    A friend of mine whose daughter is biracial also went to University of Laputa (as did he). He described her first-year room-mate in the dorm as a high-caste Hindu vegan woman from Delhi. Win-win-win for the checkboxes.

    So-called international students have tended to come from some dubious parents–the Chinese kleptocracy now seeking legitimacy, the upper castes of India, Arab families with oil money. I would like to hear from the middle-class Christian kid from a small city in Kerala or the kid who is a member of an ethnic minority in China like the Zhuang. I doubt that they are here in the U S of A.

    1. Alex Cox

      The desire of Universities – as profit-driven machines – to attract foreign students is understandable, since they pay so much. But what do the students get in return? Do they receive an actual education?

      When I lived in Liverpool I attended a graduation ceremony at JMU – John Moores University, formerly Liverpool Polytechnic (as in the US, polys and community colleges were encouraged to call themselves universities in the Thatcher years). It was fascinating to see the Engineering students receive their degrees: all had Chinese or Korean surnames. This showed very powerfully how much those nations valued engineering, and how much the English disdained it. But what did the Chinese and Korean students get for all the effort of travelling to the UK, living there, and paying top fees? Did they obtain a better education in England than they would have received in China or Korea? Or was it just a question of obtaining a credential?

      I’m not an engineer so I can’t say. I taught humanities courses at an American university and it seemed to me that foreign students were severely disadvantaged, as English wasn’t their first language. Unless you are 100% bilingual it is very, very hard to write essays, or creative pieces, as well as native speakers. Students for whom English was a second language were always at a disadvantage, and it was reflected in their grades. This might not matter at Harvard, where everyone gets an A, but if one is going to a real college to get a real education it helps – indeed it is essential – to be thoroughly fluent in the language in which the courses are taught.

      1. R. S.

        International students are in effect buying visas with work authorization. If they graduate from a US university, they get 1 year of work authorization. If they graduate from a STEM program, they get 3 years of work authorization. Universities are rushing to get their programs categorized as STEM, so now you have a situation where business degrees are even classified as STEM to encourage international student enrollment for the work authorization benefits.

        I find the practice abhorrent. It continues the trend of the neoliberalization of universities where the primary interest is in revenue generation and profits.

        By no means am I opposed to international students studying in the US, but there needs to be better policy around this rather than enabling big business to undercut US wages.

        1. No Gig

          +1 Dead-on accurate. To corporations, this is about cheap and compliant professional labor. For foreign students, US colleges are a ticket to the US job market. In software/IT, three-quarters of new hires and thirty to fifty percent of the profession are filled by foreign visa workers. Lobbyists pushed through an expanded “Optional Practical Training” (OPT) via executive order in Obama’s last months. It has no wage requirements, no numerical caps, tax disadvantages US students, and its rapid growth has eclipsed even the H-1B visas in scale.

  6. PeasantParty

    The Countries with free University Tuition will win. It is a shame that Bernie, and Team walked away without a fight.

  7. Molon labe

    Xenophobic response here: many of these students, whether they stay in the U.S. or return to China, send/take Intellectual Property. Those that stay drive down salaries.

    Regarding universities losing lucrative tuition—screw the bloated, overpaid administrations. It’s not as if the money goes to the faculty. Anyway, as pointed out, university education, like healthcare, should be provided by government (MMT and/or progressive income and wealth taxes).

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